Some pretty intense philosophising

Barrow, R. and Woods, R. (2006) An Introduction to Philosophy of Education. 4th edition. Routledge.

My last blog post was just a warm-up… there are lots of other thoughts I’ve been chewing over while reading the first half of this book. Here they are… with some resolutions for further reading:

The authors write much of Hirst and his forms and fields of knowledge; a basis for the argument for academic subjects. They present a stronger argument than Young’s. However I still think these forms and fields of knowledge should be discussed explicitly with young learners, and there should be more collaboration between the subjects so that students can experience the coming together of different forms of knowledge, and see the benefit of approaching a particular problem in different ways. My main concern is not that young people are going out in the world unable to draw on different forms of knowledge, but that some forms are too easily ‘dropped’ or avoided going forwards, and the more we keep them separate, the more likely this is to happen. You probably imagine I am talking about maths, but it is also the creative arts that are uppermost in my mind (which may require a loose interpretation of Hirst’s requirements in order to be recognised as a form of knowledge, but perhaps that’s the case for the humanities as well).

Extrapolating this to higher education… Barrow and Woods would, it seems, agree with Hirst that the purpose of HE is to extend disciplinary understanding; to take a particular form (e.g. physical sciences) or field (e.g. engineering) of knowledge further still. If the forms of knowledge are equal to the constituents of a rational mind (I wonder if this is a fair assumption), then the rational mind will surely only become partially developed if we focus on one form or field. Clearly if we broadened our focus we wouldn’t get very far with anything; that’s why I think it is more useful to talk of a collective rational mind. It is my belief that real, sustainable development can only come about if we are better able to work together, understand each other and find common purpose. We cannot send people out into the world believing that there is only one correct way to see and think about the world, and it’s their way.

The authors’ criticism of Hirst is that his theory includes nothing on selection – or value judgements about what is to be learned. They argue that education must have a purpose extrinsic to it; otherwise selection is not possible, and philosophising about education becomes redundant. Do I agree? I’m still not sure. There are clearly opposing schools of thought on whether education has intrinsic value, but I’m beginning to think this argument is circular; how can we agree on what is ‘extrinsic’ to education without agreement on what education is? If we are to say for example that indoctrination is not education for reasons x, y and z, then we start to form an argument for the intrinsic value of education (otherwise it is not education). Or do we? Is this merely an argument for the neutrality of education – learning that does no harm? The training of a suicide bomber wouldn’t fit this definition of education. But what about the CISI Level 7 Diploma in Wealth Management? Or our BA in Advertising? Discuss 😉

At present, I envisage a fuzzy continuum upon which instances of learning are placed relative to their utility to the self in society (i.e. not the selfish self as promoted by Ayn Rand). Also, I would initially have said that fulfillment of the self in society is an extrinsic purpose, but maybe it isn’t; maybe this is inherent in the concept of ‘education’, and is what is meant when people talk of its ‘intrinsic value’.

Perhaps we can’t logically discuss these matters in the abstract as the forms of knowledge are such different beasts. The authors present an argument that the humanities don’t need to be geared to utilitarian ends as they are by their very nature incredibly useful to all of us; enlarging our imaginations and enabling us to recognise our problems as symptomatic of the wider human condition (I liked the McNicol quote – ‘history is not a subject for children’). I’m not sure I agree with the assertion that our educational endeavours should focus on those things that are unique to human beings; the understanding and control of our world – in favour of – for example – making and using tools. I don’t see why we shouldn’t value the latter just because we’re not the only species who uses tools. Are Barrow & Woods suggesting that we get our houses built by chimpanzees? Or that learning how to do these things doesn’t count as education? I am reminded of Barn the Spoon, a local guy with a wood-whittling shop who runs classes in spoon-whittling and tool-making on Hackney Rd – http://barnthespoon.com/. And the lovely people at the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills, where I learned to build with straw bales. Does ‘fully human’ have to mean ‘uniquely human’? If we only focus on and value that which is unique to us as a species, we miss out crucial aspects of our humanity. Imagine if henceforth I decided to just focus on those behaviours that are unique to myself; I might break the blog server and then drown in my own homemade kimchi. It would not be good.

The major issue I have with Barrow & Woods’ central question ‘what does it mean to be well-educated’, is that I think a good education never stops (unless you are deceased – in which case the question is fine). I’d question the use of the past tense and also the passive implication; the extent to which the word ‘educated’ acknowledges the learner’s own agency in the process of their education. Maybe it’s time to resurrect and repurpose the term ‘deep learner’, for one who constantly advances their own ideas on how best to tend to their body, mind, community and environment. For me, this is more meaningful – and relevant to the needs of the individual and society – than describing someone as ‘well educated’.

I’d like to look up the writings of Patrick Nowell-Smith as his approach to the judgement of educational value interests me – in short, identifying skills and activities promoted by the study of disciplines, then justifying why these skills and activities are worthy of promotion. I’m curious to see if any method of selection can transcend the vested interests of teachers, management and funding bodies, and the wider value systems of the time and place. STEM subjects, for example, have an easier time promoting themselves in the present context where controlling natural phenomena and ignoring the negative aspects of technological and scientific progress is seen as necessary to continue the rise in our standard of living (and Nicky Morgan goes on air telling kids not to ‘ruin their lives’ by studying anything else).

I thought – if it’s true that present-day kids pick STEM subjects for vocational reasons, then it wouldn’t be surprising. Co-incidentally, at this moment in the book I noticed the young lad sat opposite me on the train shuffling his UCAS interview paperwork and a brochure from the University of Sheffield Physics department. I asked him why he’d chosen to study physics. He said because it was his favourite subject. He wanted to be an astrophysicist, but if that didn’t work out he could ‘always go into finance’. I told him not to go into finance because that’s where all the c**ts are, and wished him luck with the physics. So there you go. Conclusion from sample size of one – we all want to do something we enjoy for a living, despite knowing that the way to make money is to work with money. Our first choice is doing something we actually like, so that we don’t end up hating ourselves.

Another writer I’d like to read more from is George Steiner; in the 1971 quote on p.51 he is writing about the ‘all-governing axiom of continued advancement’ being questioned for the first time: “the next door opens onto realities ontologically opposed to our sanity”. I’m keen to consider whether certain lines of enquiry should not be pursued at all – weaponry, for example. And a tonne of greyer areas… I need to talk to one of my students about this too – Alex McIntosh, who works in the Centre for Sustainable Fashion as a teacher & researcher. I’m sure he’ll have an interesting perspective on all of this.

To finish… I really think Barrow and Woods need to educate themselves a little (they could watch the documentary Still The Enemy Within for a start) before they dismiss those who are ‘content to dig for coal’ as not enlightened, and their way of life as incongruent with higher order thinking. I am enjoying their book, which is generally well-balanced, and am continuing to find points I can respond to, but passages like this – and their barbed comments about Marxism (e.g. p.62) – betray their elitism.

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